The Biden administration is reportedly weighing the implementation of the Obama- and Trump-era policy of detaining migrant families seeking asylum in the US – an approach he denounced and ended after taking office. For grassroots immigration advocates, the decision came with little-to-no surprise. Weighing the administration’s immigration policies in their totality shows they are eerily similar to those of former president Donald Trump’s administration. But they didn’t start with Barack Obama, Donald Trump, or Joe Biden. After Bill Clinton’s administration criminalized crossing the border, the George W. Bush administration painted immigration as a problem that it is not.

Empowered by Clinton’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, former president Bush made migrating to the US a national security issue using terrorism as a fear tactic in the wake of 9/11. After the Bush administration created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the inevitable afterbirth that is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) became a weapon to militarize immigration enforcement – disproportionately targeting non-white migrants already in the US. Then, in May 2006, former president Bush took it a step further and called for 6,000 National Guard troops to be deployed at the US-Mexico border after immigration reform efforts stalled in Congress.

Building on decades of history and despite court orders and decisions made throughout the years, every administration seems intent on trying to test the level of inhumanity used against non-white migrants arriving at the US southern border. Many policies former President Trump tried to enforce had previously been shot down by federal courts under prior administrations. Similarly, the Biden administration continues to try and manipulate the policies by implementing Trump-era ideas with minor changes. The White House intends to prove that slight differences in its policies will appease federal judges’ complaints against previous actions. With a stable of staffers boasting political clout and knowledge of how to execute policies that circumvent US and international laws, the Biden administration might just pull it off.

The backstop for the incremental inhumanity towards migrant families from the southern hemisphere seems to be that children can’t be held for more than a few days. This is what led to sporadic family separations during the Obama era and later exploded under Trump. But Biden has Susan Rice, who worked for the Obama administration, and Jake Sullivan who operates in the same vein as the well-known bigot and Trump staffer, Stephen Miller. Sullivan is smarter than Miller and Rice is a power player with massive influence in Washington. Known to suggest and enforce aggressive and inhumane actions against non-white migrants, like the Trump administration, they justify these approaches by arguing that they’re using them as deterrents for future asylum-seekers. A supposed warning for them not to come because they’ll be treated badly even though seeking asylum after entering the US is a legal act. 

Inhumanity as a Deterrent Doesn’t Work

Even after admitting 87% of detained families and children fleeing violence in Central America were found to have legitimate asylum claims and should be allowed to pursue them in immigration court, the Obama administration refused to treat the massive influx of migrants as the humanitarian crisis that it was. Instead, it chose to paint mothers and their children as threats to the United States. A narrative that has been normalized and continues today. Conflating non-white immigrants from the southern hemisphere with drug smuggling and crime in the US isn’t new. Whether blaming them for taking jobs, committing crimes, or exploiting social services most migrants don’t qualify for, the accusations against them have only continued to grow and spread. These are the narratives that justify the inhumanity.

After conceding most migrants were fleeing persecution and the court demanded it stops detaining families and warned about being in violation of the 1997 Flores settlement agreement, the Obama administration defended family detentions as a necessary “deterrent” meant to send a message to Central American families that “they are not welcome here. Another tactic under Obama that was supposed to be a deterrent was the construction of what many referred to as “cagesto hold unaccompanied minors for extended periods of time. While they didn’t get much attention at the time and are broadly ignored now, they got the attention of most of the country during the Trump administration. Despite the fact that inhumanity doesn’t deter migrants from fleeing their home countries, every administration for decades has employed and expanded human rights abuses at the US-Mexico border.

According to a Congressional Research Service report from April 2021, the Flores settlement agreement should be adhered to and serve as a potent reminder to President Biden. The report lays out precisely what the agreement dictates. 

“Within three to five days of a minor’s apprehension and detention, the government generally must either (1) release the minor to a parent, legal guardian, adult relative, or other “capable and willing” designated adult or entity; or (2) place the minor in a nonsecure facility “licensed by an appropriate State agency to provide residential, group, or foster care services for dependent children.” Minors may be placed in secure juvenile facilities in limited cases, such as when charged with a crime. This detention period of three to five days may be relaxed in the event of an emergency or an influx of minors into the United States, as long as immigration authorities place all minors in a nonsecure, licensed facility “as expeditiously as possible.” An alien minor not released from detention is entitled to a bond hearing before an immigration judge.”

Congressional Research Service, April 2021

While the Flores settlement agreement somewhat protects migrant children, the verbiage in Clinton’s immigration law allows federal agencies to take extreme measures against migrants seeking asylum with an expansive budget. Under the Bush administration, funding for border security and immigration enforcement exploded by 159 percent from $4.8 billion when he took office in 2001 to $12.3 billion in 2008. The overall increase in the immigration enforcement budget from the time President Clinton signed the immigration bill into law went from $1.9 billion in 1997 to $21.1 billion in 2018. Money spent on stopgap measures through court rulings and executive orders only further the mistreatment of migrants based on hateful rhetoric that comes from the very same agencies tasked with humanely enforcing the law.

The inherent xenophobia of the political system in the US isn’t new nor are the tactics used. The decisions by many different courts charging that all migrants have a right to due process have often and are currently being overlooked. For the last three years, those rights have been undermined by Title 42. Now that it’s coming to an end, the Biden administration continues to employ the same policies Trump used to deny migrants their rights. The notion of inhumanity being a deterrent is not a new one either. But despite the decades of studies and reports indicating that inhumane deterrence policies don’t work, the US continues to make the atrocities it commits worse by arguing it expects different outcomes than those that science provides.

The Antagonist Magazine is a project made up of journalists, activists, and writers focused on amplifying the stories of marginalized communities. The goal is to educate the public by sharing narratives focused on independent voices. Born of an online community in 2019, our platform operates independently; free of corporate influence. Please consider supporting the work of dozens of writers from various communities.

Arturo Dominguez

Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice.

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